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Abuse in the Muslim Community; Addressing The Elephant In The Room

Posted on Oct 30, 2017
Alina Din


Let's address the elephant in the room: we have an abuse problem in the Muslim community. It's global, endemic, isn't new, and sadly, probably won't go anywhere for a long, long time. We have a problem with looking in the mirror and seeing our own flaws, but the only way to adequately address them head-on is to first admit to ourselves that we have a problem and need to do something about it. If anything from the past few weeks has taught us, abuse is not limited to lofty scholars or those in the upper echelons of Muslim leadership - it's happening in front of us, before our very own eyes. If it's not being experienced at home, then we're definitely dealing with it at MSAs, masajids, institutions of learning, pretty much anywhere a group of people are bound to be gathered for a sustained period of time. 

How we respond when crises concerning abuse (sexual or otherwise) arise is even more impactful. The most sinister thing about abuse is how normalized it is and how you and I enable it every day with our behavior and acceptance of it.The particular abuse (sexual or otherwise) I am referring to here is rooted in misogyny and a lack of respect for women's minds and bodies. Too often, our outward piety (for women, how we dress and act and the more adherent we are to rules of hijab and docile we are in our mannerisms the better; for men, the longer the beard and more eloquent the Qur'an and Hadith dropping) is the yardstick for how seriously we are to be taken or deserving we are of respect. This was certainly the case when I was in the MSA in college; acceptance seemed to hinge on how closely you fit the mold of an outwardly pious Sunni Muslim, and those who didn't found it difficult to fit in. I was blessed to grow up in an active and practicing Muslim household and didn't realize the privilege this afforded me until only very recently. I had little trouble fitting in at the MSA and because being outwardly pious was so rewarded, and I, too, was judgmental of anyone who didn't fit the stereotypical bill of piety. If I had heard about a story of abuse against a fellow female Muslim classmate, my first thought would have been what could she have done to prevent such an occurrence from happening. According to an illuminating article called The Psychology of Victim-Blaming in The Atlantic, this type of thinking falls in line with victim blaming, which they define as, "any time someone defaults to questioning what a victim could have done differently."

Typically, if a woman were to come forth with some sort of abuse allegation against an individual, we assign some blame to her for allowing it to happen, even if we were to say she could have done x, y, or z to prevent it from happening. We also afford the alleged perpetrator benefit of the doubt. For example, when Nouman Ali Khan's scandal broke loose, three of the four stages of grief commenced - shock, denial, and anger. Acceptance is the final stage but many have yet to arrive at it since this often takes time. Many of his defenders lamented the tasteless exposure of his sins and demanded evidence of the allegations. When the screenshots surfaced, Nouman was generously given the benefit of doubt. What if the tables were turned? What if Nouman came forth with allegations that some students were harassing and abusing him? Would we give the same benefit of the doubt to the students, then? In theory, each person - regardless of status or gender - should be given equal weight in benefit of the doubt, but in reality, this is unfortunately not the case. If you think those women were lying or exaggerating, then also consider that there's a chance they're being completely honest and substantiated. Similarly, if you are convinced he's completely not at fault, then also consider that he very well could be, as well. It ought to go both ways. 

At a constructive level, what can we do to help support victims, instead of blaming them?

1. Listen with an open mind. If you hear a story or if someone comes forward to you with a situation they are dealing with, check your judgments and preconceived notions at the door. Hear them out and try to understand them, their situation, and where they're coming from. Moral support goes a long way in helping a victim feel less isolated in an already disempowering situation.

2. Don't push them into taking action against their abuser if they are not ready yet because that also strips them of their sense of control and power. You can try saying, "I'm concerned for your safety. Have you considered talking to a professional about what you're going through or calling a free hotline?" Or, you can say, "I know of resources you can use that would be helpful. Ultimately, you know your situation best, but if there is anything I can do to help, please let me know." This way, you are reflecting power back to them while also giving them unconditional support. [Keep reading for links to resources!]

"Coming forward" is no easy task, as demonstrated by the vitriol we've seen over the last few weeks against the women leveling allegations against NAK. Suffering abuse is traumatic, isolating, and soul-crushing. A friend who'd been a victim of a predator in college said that if she'd come forward with her story and damning evidence only to be met with this same level of vitriol and insatiable need for further proof, coupled with a rallying circle of defense around the perpetrator, she'd probably have killed herself. Think about that. 

Can misogyny be rationalized? Does it need to be? What do we teach boys at home, and are we teaching our girls differently? When we tell our young girls to dress properly, behave What do we teach boys at home, and are we teaching our girls differently? When we tell our young girls to dress properly, behave properly, what are we teaching our boys in the same breath?properly, what are we teaching our boys in the same breath? Beyond our words, our actions carry even more weight; how we respond when crises concerning abuse (sexual or otherwise) arise is even more impactful. The most sinister thing about abuse is how normalized it is and how you and I enable it every day with our behavior and acceptance of it. As Muslim women, we are taught how hijab is a form of protection - it makes us known as women of faith so as not to be harassed; when abuse happens to us, it is usually misconstrued to stem from a failure to uphold our chastity, rather than becoming a victim of circumstance or being purposefully harmed from an abuser. 

The recent statement by a group of scholars condemning Nouman Ali Khan's actions against his victims is timely and rightly stresses the need to safeguard our community and protect victims of abuse from further harm. It is heartening to read them legitimize their trauma and assist them on the path to recovery. While we have a great deal more to reconcile in how we treat abusers and their victims in our community, the letter sets a positive precedent for the changes that need to be made to prevent further harms like these from happening again in our community. 

If you or anyone you know is a victim of spiritual or sexual abuse, please read this Spiritual Abuse Toolkit put together by the Family & Youth Insititute. For recommended responses as well as resources, reading materials, and guides to sexual assault check out HEART Women & Girls. There is no time better than today to stand up to abuse in our communities. The change starts with us.

Find this post relevant? Please share it along, especially with any victims of abuse you may know. 

What are some ways you've stood up to abuse in your community? Share in the comments below! Let's get a conversation going!